It was a bright June morning, redolent of the breath of roses and honeysuckle in full bloom, sweet with the songs of birds; and nowhere sweeter or lovelier than at Lakeside, where gentle breezes sighed in the tree-tops and glad sunbeams danced on the waters of the lake.
The grandmother’s face expressed placid contentment as she went about her daily round of household duties; Ronald was in almost gay spirits, averring that he had not felt so well at any time before since receiving his wounds; the children were full of mirth and jollity, running hither and thither about the garden and lawn, gathering flowers for the parlor vases, feeding the chickens, hunting eggs in the barn, and doing various little services for the older members of the family. Their sister noticed their efforts with smiles and words of commendation, talked cheerfully, even gayly, to her grandmother and Ronald, and went about attending to her many duties and responsibilities in her usual prompt and energetic fashion; yet her heart was heavy and her cheek pale.
“Miriam, dear child,” Mrs. Heath said at length, “you are not well.”
“I’m not sick, granny dear,” was the smiling rejoinder; “a slight headache is all that ails me, and a walk will relieve it, I think; so, as a few things are wanted from the stores, and I can be spared from the field, I’m going into town.”
“That’s right,” responded her grandmother; “and don’t hurry yourself, for it’s early, and you’ll have plenty of time to walk leisurely—to call on Mrs. Jasper, too; and I wish you would, for we haven’t heard or seen anything of her or the doctor for some days.”
“I shall if I have time, grandma,” replied Miriam, drawing on her gloves—for she had just entered the room attired for her walk. “I am very fond of Serena, as you know, and a talk with her is always a real treat.”
She did her errands first, then turned in the direction of Dr. Jasper’s pretty vine-covered and rose-embowered cottage.
Serena met her at the door, gave her a warm embrace, and seated her in an arm-chair on the shaded porch, taking another by her side.
At their feet lay the little garden, gay with flowers, that separated the house from the street. Perry was amusing himself there trundling a toy wheelbarrow up and down the walks. He dropped it to run to Miriam to claim a kiss, asking eagerly if Bertie and Olly were coming, too.
“Not to-day, my little man,” Miriam said, bestowing the caress, and keeping her arm about him. “How is little sister?” she asked.
“Oh, dus splendid!” he exclaimed, his dark eyes dancing with pleasure; “her’s de nicest ’ittle sister ever was.”
“He’s very fond of her,” Serena remarked, with satisfaction. “And she is a lovely little darling, if her father and mother are competent to judge of her charms,” she added, with her low, silvery laugh.
“And am I not to be treated to a sight of her?” asked Miriam, lightly.
“Yes, indeed. She is taking her morning nap; but I think we can take a peep at her ladyship without waking her,” Serena said, rising, and leading the way through the hall to the cosey sitting-room beyond, where, in a dainty crib, the babe lay sleeping—a plump, fair, golden-haired, blue-eyed little creature some three months old.
“What a darling!” exclaimed Miriam, half under her breath as the two bent over the little one with eyes full of loving admiration.
“Isn’t she? the dear, tiny, helpless thing!” murmured Serena, just touching her lips to the velvet cheek. “Ah, Miriam dear, how happy I am!” she sighed, when they had gone back to the porch and resumed their seats. “I couldn’t wish anything better for you than such a wifehood and motherhood as mine: two such darling children, and a husband so tenderly careful of his wife, so kind and affectionate as mine.”
“I am very glad for you, Serena,” Miriam said in reply. “I think you have won a prize in the matrimonial lottery; but I can scarcely expect to do so well; therefore, my better plan will be to remain single.”
“Oh, no, indeed you must not! I am very sure you can do—perhaps not quite, but very nearly as well, if you choose,” returned Serena, with a laughing glance into her friend’s face. “He’s deeply in love, Mirry; there’s no doubt about it; the doctor and I have both seen it for some time past.”
“You are talking in riddles,” Miriam said, smiling and blushing in spite of herself. Then a look of keen distress came into her face.
“Mirry, you are in trouble,” Serena said, taking her friend’s hand and squeezing it affectionately in her own. “Tell me what it is, dear, and let me sympathize, and help, too, if I can.”
“I came, intending to tell you,” faltered Miriam, “and to ask advice of the doctor—not professional; but it’s partly a business matter, and I can’t bear to speak of it to Ronald or Sandy; though, indeed, I cannot—oh, it would be impossible!—I never, never could; there is, after all, but one course open to me; and yet—and yet—”
“What is it, dear?” asked Serena, as Miriam broke off abruptly, hiding her face in her hands, while the hot blood mounted to her very hair. “If it’s anything Alonzo can help you in, he will do it most gladly, I am sure. He’s away for to-day at Fairfield, or near there; I expected him home this morning, but had a telegram awhile ago saying he couldn’t leave a very sick patient till to-morrow. Oh,” arriving at an inkling of the truth by a sudden intuition, “it’s that horrid Bangs! I know it is! Have him? No, of course you couldn’t! ’twould be worse than death by far!”
“Yes, Serena; oh, a thousand times worse!” Miriam exclaimed, dropping her hands and fixing anguished eyes on her friend’s face. “But oh, you don’t know what mischief—not to me only, but to those dearer than myself—he now has it in his power to do!”
“What, Mirry? what can he have it in his power to do to you in this free country?” queried Serena, both look and tone expressing surprise and dismay, along with some slight incredulity.
“He holds a mortgage on Lakeside; and as I am not able to meet even the full interest at present, he can foreclose and rob us of the home our father made for us—the dear home where we were all born, and where father and mother died. Is not that a hard alternative?” Miriam asked, hot tears streaming from her eyes.
“Dreadful! dreadful! But has he actually threatened it? has he presumed to offer himself to you? He who isn’t fit to wipe the dust from your shoes!” she added, in wrathful accents.
“Yes; he has done both,” sighed Miriam; then went on to tell of an interview held with Bangs on the previous afternoon in the grove adjacent to the house at Lakeside.
Feeling entitled to an hour of recreation, after many spent in overseeing the men in the field, and attending to domestic duties about the house, she had gone to the grove with a book, and while pleasingly absorbed in its contents had been surprised by a visit from Bangs, who, in spite of a reception of studied coldness, had forced his society upon her and made her an offer of his hand, professing to have already bestowed his heart upon her.
“Heart, indeed!” exclaimed Serena, in hot indignation; “he doesn’t own anything worthy of the name. I hope you told him so.”
“Not exactly that,” Miriam said, with the ghost of a smile; “but my reply was as unequivocal and decided a rejection of his suit as I knew how to make it. Then he grew furious, and haughtily informed me that he would find means to compel me to accept him or he would ruin the whole family, as he had bought the mortgage from Mr. Himes, and could foreclose when he pleased.”
“Himes!” exclaimed Serena. “Oh, did you hear the news that was telegraphed from Fairfield this morning?”
“No; what was it?”
“That Mr. Himes was attacked on his raft shortly before daylight, robbed, and nearly murdered.”
“Oh, how dreadful! But he was not quite killed?”
“No; he was insensible when found; but they succeeded in restoring him to consciousness, so that he was able to tell that his robber and intended murderer was that Phelim O’Rourke who was suspected of committing the Lakeside burglary, but cleared by Bangs swearing to an alibi. I don’t believe a word of that alibi, and never did; and now hope that they will get the rascal into custody and find some of your marked notes on him or in his possession somewhere.”
Miriam drew a long breath. “Oh, if that should happen!” she cried, “I—I think it would help me to get out of Bangs’s power.”
“I do believe it would!” exclaimed Serena, her eyes sparkling at the thought. “But whether that happens or not, Alonzo is sure to find a way of escape for you. Miriam, he’s the best and kindest-hearted man that ever was made. I used to think I was fond of Perry’s father—Perry Golding, Sr.—but it was nothing to compare to my love for his successor.”
“I am so glad,” Miriam said, smiling sympathetically into the speaker’s eyes, “for the doctor is worthy of all the love you can give him, and it makes you both so happy. You have never told me anything about Mr. Golding. He was killed in the war—in battle—was he not?”
“No; he joined the Confederate army in spite of the strongest opposition on my part, and after a while I had word that he was sick in a hospital down in Alabama, and though I hurried there as fast as possible, he was dead before my arrival—dead and buried; they showed me his grave, and gave me his clothes, but wouldn’t let me remove the body.
“I went home in deep grief, for I had been quite attached to poor Perry. But he wasn’t the man Dr. Jasper is; he would get drunk occasionally, and then be cross and unreasonable; sometimes actually abusive.”
She broke off with a sudden exclamation, “Oh, see what a crowd is coming down the street! I wonder what it means?”
They sprang to their feet and stood gazing intently at an approaching party of horsemen, followed by a motley crowd of men and boys on foot.
As they drew near enough for the recognition of faces, Miriam remarked, in a low tone, to her companion, “That is Mr. Duncan, the county sheriff, riding at the head; and he has a prisoner in charge. Can it be?—yes, yes, it is Phelim O’Rourke! Oh, how thankful I am that they have caught him—the would-be murderer of that poor old man!”
“So am I; but why do they bring him here? Why not take him to Fairfield? so much nearer as it is to the place where he did the dreadful deed.”
“Because this is the county town, and the jail is here. He richly deserves hanging; but capital punishment has been abolished in this State. Besides, if his victim doesn’t die it wouldn’t be a hanging matter in any State—ought not to be, of course.”
“There’ll be a trial, anyhow,” remarked Serena, “and Bangs will, I presume, do his best to defend the scoundrel again; but I hope he will not be able to save him from the penitentiary.”
The crowd had passed, and Miriam found it was time for her to go home. The friends parted affectionately, Serena exhorting Miriam to be brave and cheerful, for the doctor would surely find a way to help her out of her trouble.
Miriam walked briskly on, hardly looking to the right or left, for her thoughts were very busy with her personal difficulties and the startling events of the morning. So it was a surprise when she was suddenly addressed by a man’s voice speaking in gentlemanly accents, “Excuse me, madam, but can you direct me to the house of Dr. Jasper?” and turning her head, perceived a stranger standing, hat in hand, by her side.
“Yes,” she said; “it is that pretty house yonder, on the other side of the street, nearly two squares below here, and with roses and honeysuckle climbing over the front porch.”
“Thank you,” he returned, with a low bow, and hurried away in the direction indicated.
“I wonder who he is?” thought Miriam, sending a backward glance after the retreating figure. “Somebody wanting the doctor, I suppose. Dear me! why didn’t I think to tell him that he is out of town and will not return till to-morrow?”
It was too late for that now, so she dismissed the stranger from her thoughts and hastened on her way, feeling that she had already lingered too long.
Perry had gone back to his play, and Serena was still seated in the porch, with a bit of sewing in her hand, stitching industriously and softly humming a snatch of song in the fulness of her content and joy in the thought of her loved husband and two darling children, when the gate opened, and lifting her head at the sound, she saw a tall man of military bearing stride in, snatch up Perry, and give him a vigorous hug and kiss.
“Don’t, man! oo dus et me be!” cried the little fellow, struggling to release himself.
Setting him on his feet again, the stranger passed quickly up the porch steps and stood before Serena. She glanced up into his bearded face in surprised inquiry, sprang to her feet, and stepped back a pace or two, her heart beating wildly, the color suffusing her face, then suddenly retreating, and leaving it of a death-like pallor.
“Don’t you know me?” he asked, with a slightly scornful curl of the lip.
“Yes,” she answered, slowly, her voice trembling with agitation; “it’s—George Golding, the brother of my former husband, Perry’s father.”
“No; it’s not George, but Perry himself. I’m your husband, Serena, and you’re my wife. My claim is stronger than Jasper’s, and he’ll have to give you up to me.”
A look of anguish swept over her wan face, and she clutched at a chair-back for support.
“It isn’t true,” she said, hoarsely; “it can’t be true, for Perry Golding died three years ago. I went to the hospital to nurse him, but he was dead before I got there; they told me so, and they showed me his grave and gave me his clothes.”
“’Twas all a lie, then,” he asserted, “for here I am, alive and well, and I’ve come for my wife, and intend to have her, too—her and my son.”
“I’ll not go with you!” she cried, the color returning to her cheek and her eyes flashing with anger. “I tell you my former husband is dead, and you—you are an impostor!”
“Am I?” he said, coolly, helping himself to a chair. “Sit down and listen to what I have to say in proof of my identity.”
She dropped into her seat again, and he went on to speak of some things known only to him and herself. He succeeded in convincing her; she knew and acknowledged that he was the husband she had so long believed to be in his grave, so long ceased to mourn, but it was with bitter sobs and tears that she did so; she drew herself away when he would have embraced her, and bade him leave her—at least for the present.
Perry had joined them, and stood by his mother’s side, glancing wonderingly from one to the other. Presently he doubled up his fist and shook it in his father’s face. “Go ’way, bad man!” he said, fiercely; “oo make my mamma cry. Go ’way! I’ll tell my papa on oo, and he’ll whip oo!”
“He’ll have a big job on his hands if he attempts that,” Golding said, regarding the little fellow with an amused smile. “But I’m your papa, my man.”
“No, oo ain’t!” cried the child, backing away as he would have taken him by the hand.
Just then an infant’s cry came from within the house
“There! oo’ve waked the baby—my ’ittle sister—oo bad ole man! Go ’way dis minute!” cried Perry, with a stamp of his baby foot, while Serena rose hurriedly, ran into the sitting-room, snatched her babe from its crib, and, straining it to her breast, turned and faced Golding, who had followed her in.
“Yours?” he queried, with an angry flush on his cheek.
“Yes, mine,” she said, firmly, soothing it with tenderest caresses; “my own precious darling.”
“Jasper’s brat, eh? She’ll have to be left behind when you go with me.”
“Then I’ll never go with you! Leave my baby, indeed! never, never while I draw the breath of life!”
“Now, see here, Serena,” he said, in a tone of expostulation, “you know you’re not Jasper’s wife, and can’t be while I live.”
She turned on him fiercely. “What right had you to go away and leave me for three years to believe you dead and buried? If you had ever written me a line or sent a message even by some one else, this would never have happened. You are responsible for it all, and you have no right to claim me now. Where have you been all these years?”
“In Mexico. I’ve made money enough to enable us to live in comfort and even luxury, and I thought to share it with you and our boy.”
“Money!” she cried, with ineffable scorn; “you would bribe me with money to leave this darling,” gazing down at her babe with tear-dimmed eyes, an expression of unspeakable love and tenderness stealing over her features, “and—and the husband who has been far, far more tender and true than ever you were, Perry Golding.”
“Not your husband, madam; he can’t be that while I live; and now that you know that I am living, you will leave him at once if you are a—the virtuous woman I always took you to be.”
“Go! leave me this moment!” she cried, imperiously. “You, and you alone, are to blame for this dreadful state of things!”
“I go,” he said, bowing himself out; “but you and Jasper will hear from me again.”
“Oh, how cruel, how cruel he is!” she sobbed, sinking into a low rocker. “He knew I was married again; he had heard it; and why couldn’t he stay away and leave me in peace? Oh, it would break my heart to leave Alonzo, and you, my precious, precious baby!” clasping it close, and covering its face with kisses and tears.
“Don’t cry, mamma; the naughty man’s gone,” said Perry, creeping to her side and putting an arm around her neck; “don’t cry; he sha’n’t come back any more; I’ll watch the gate, and if I see him coming, I’ll run and lock the door.”
“Oh, Perry, we can’t keep him out!” she sighed, hugging and kissing the little prattler, while the big tears rolled down her cheeks. “What shall I do?”
“Send for papa to come right away.”
“So I will,” she said, laying her babe in the crib again, and going to her writing-desk. “Run to the kitchen, Perry, dear, and tell Annie I want her.”
Taking a slip of paper from the desk, she wrote a message:
“Come home; I have urgent need of you.”
Annie was at her side before the last word was penned. The girl had overheard a part of the interview between her mistress and the stranger, and was full of excitement and curiosity.
“Oh, Mrs. Jasper, what’s wrong?” she exclaimed. “Was that one o’ them burglars threatenin’ you? They’re gettin’ so bold, nobody knows what they won’t do next.”
“No; he was not a burglar,” Serena answered, speaking with as entire composure as she could command. “I want you to take this slip of paper to the telegraph office and ask them to send the message I have written on it to Dr. Jasper, at Fairfield, as promptly as possible. Here is the money to pay for it.”
Mr. Himes had recovered sufficiently to be told of the arrest of O’Rourke, with all the fruits of the robbery of the raft in his possession; for so hot had been the pursuit that the villains had found no opportunity for a division of the spoils.
The old man received the news with exultation, declaring his intention to prosecute to the utmost extent of the law, and at once engaged Captain Charlton as his attorney.
The latter was preparing to leave for Prairieville, Dr. Jasper intending to remain behind till the next day, when Serena’s telegram was handed him. He could not imagine what was amiss at home; but her assertion that she had urgent need of him was sufficient to work an immediate change in his plans. Consigning his Fairfield patients to the care of another physician, he drove back to Prairieville with Charlton, and about the middle of the afternoon alighted at his own door.
Little Perry greeted him with a welcoming shout. “Oh, papa, I’m so glad you’ve comed! A naughty man comed here and made mamma cry, and she doesn’t stop. But oo won’t let him come any more; will oo, papa?”
“I shall certainly not allow anybody to trouble mamma if I can help it, my boy,” returned the doctor, hurrying into the house.
Serena met him, all bathed in tears, and threw herself sobbing into his arms.
“My darling!” he exclaimed, in surprise and concern, “what is wrong? what can have happened to distress you so?”
“Oh, Alonzo, the worst, the very worst thing you can imagine! Perry Golding is not dead—there was some strange mistake; he is here; in town; and—and he claims me as more his than yours. But oh, I love you—only you; and it will kill me if I have to go back to him!”
“It is beyond belief!” he cried, aghast. “Surely the fellow is an impostor!”
“No; I thought so at first; but he proved his identity to me beyond a doubt. Oh, tell me, have I not a right to choose between you and cling to the one I love best—the one who will let me have both my children?—for he would force me to leave my baby behind.”
“Then he is utterly unworthy of you!” exclaimed the doctor, in hot indignation.
“Then you will not let him tear me away from you?” she sobbed, clinging closer to him.
“It would be like submitting to having my heart torn out,” he groaned; “but oh, my dear, I cannot yet see what can be done—how I can rightfully ignore his claim to you, my heart’s idol! Let me think,” he added, releasing her from his embrace and beginning to pace the floor.
“He deserted me and left me for three years to believe him dead and buried,” she said. “I think I’ve heard that was considered sufficient ground for divorce.”
“According to man’s enactments, yes; but, dearest,” gazing on her with a look of yearning tenderness, “we who profess to be God’s followers and children must abide by the law of God, who permits divorce for but one cause. Ah,” with a brightening countenance as a sudden recollection came to him, “I do remember now to have heard, before we left your old home, that Perry Golding had given you that one cause!”
“Is it so?” she cried, half breathlessly. “I had not known it, though I can well believe it may have been true. Tell me about it, please.”
He did so.
“And you will tell him?” she said, when he had finished his story; “and surely he must see at once that he has no longer any rightful claim to me, and will go away and leave us in peace.”
“There will have to be a divorce,” replied the doctor. “I hope he may be induced to join in asking for it, in which case, if I am not very much mistaken, the judge can grant it without bringing the affair into court.”
“And if he won’t join in the request?” she asked, almost holding her breath to listen for his reply.
“You may have to sue for divorce, bringing your proof of marital infidelity and desertion.”
“Oh, horrible!” she cried, shuddering, and hiding her face; “to have all that dragged before the public!”
“Dearest, do not distress yourself,” he said, tenderly, and with emotion; “we will hope that alternative may not be forced upon you.”